"You want fries with that?" It's safe to say that most of the 47 million customers that McDonald's serves every day answer "Yes."
But those customers, it's safe to say, did not know they were ordering up pesticides with that, too.
McDonald's, the largest fast-food chain the world and the largest buyer of potatoes in the United States, is under pressure from shareholders to do something about pesticide use on the potatoes it buys. To avoid a shareholder resolution on the subject, McDonald's has agreed to "survey its U.S. suppliers compile a list of best practices in pesticide reduction and recommend those best practices to its global suppliers," according to Reuters.
Potatoes have been on or near the list of the Environmental Working Group's dirty dozen foods with the most pesticide residue for years. That means, according to a government analysis, that after a typical person buys a typical potato and prepares it in a typical way, it's among the fruits and vegetables most likely to be laced with pesticides. (The government regulates pesticide residue, so any chemical left on food is deemed to pose no health risk; that said, pesticides are designed to kill something -- a bug, worm, fungus or weed -- and most people don't like the idea of taking each meal with a little drop of poison.)
The spud is the No. 1 most popular veggie in the U.S. The average American eats 130 pounds of potatoes every year -- that's 44% more than the next veggie on the list, the tomato (also sometimes included on the annual Dirty Dozen list).
The bigger concern with pesticide use, typically, is the health of farm workers, farm soils and the wildlife and people living on or near farms. Potatoes are the largest vegetable crop in the U.S., accounting for 15% of farm sales receipts, according to the Department of Agriculture. The U.S. is the world's fourth-largest producer of potatoes, producing 20 million tons on farmland roughly equivalent to the size of Rhode Island. Roughly 50% of the U.S. potato crop goes to French fries, potato chips and other potato products.
A variety of pests plague potato crops -- including nematodes, insect, weeds and diseases -- and conventional farmers turn to pesticides to solve these problems. "Potatoes ... use more pounds of pesticides per acre than most crops," according to Beyond Pesticides:
"Farmers often spray on a weekly basis, or even more frequently to try to prevent blight. They also spray herbicides to kill the tops of the plants at the end of the growing season to make the underground tubers easier to harvest. Over 40 toxic pesticides are used on potatoes including ethoprop, mancozeb, chlorothalonil, EPTC and metribuzin.
Most of these pesticides are linked to serious chronic effects such as cancer, endocrine disruption and reproductive/developmental effects. Many leach to groundwater and contaminate surface waters. Intensive potato cultivation and pesticides usage have been implicated in the high rates of rare cancers in young children in rural western Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada. The island farming community of about 14,000 has experienced occurrences of osteosarcoma, several lymphomas, Ewings sarcoma, and a number of myeloid leukemia cases, all among children."
(Could it be, as some recent research suggests, that pesticides cause diabetes, and not the fat those French fries are sizzled in?)
All that said, potatoes are quite nutritious. If you're in the market for a good dose of potassium or Vitamin B6 potatoes are for you. Potatoes could even be considered a superfood. To avoid pesticide residue, choose USDA organic-certified potatoes, which are not grown using chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
McDonald's, for agreeing to survey its potato suppliers -- which include two of the largest U.S. potato businesses, ConAgra Foods Inc.'s Lamb Weston unit, and J.R. Simplot Co. -- deserves credit for working to reduce the use of toxic pesticides on food crops. The shareholder groups that pressured McDonald's to make this move -- the Bard College Endowment, Newground Social Investment and the AFL-CIO Reserve Fund -- deserve even more. That's what socially responsible investing is all about.
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